In recent days, two of Australian cricket history’s brightest stars have passed away. One, Shane Warne, has lived life bigger than any Hollywood star. The other, Rod Marsh, has taken a quieter more circumspect course throughout his retirement. While the younger generation will justifiably mourn the loss of Warne, who was a genius of a cricketer, it is Marsh who I identify with. I began writing this piece before the news of Warne’s sudden death hit the airwaves. I nearly shelved it, and then thought stuff it, Rodney deserves to be acknowledged for who he was and who represented.
I was privileged to grow up in what was a golden Australian sporting age. The jewel in the crown of Australian sport at that time was the Australian cricket team headed by the Chappell brothers, Dougie Walters, Jeff Thomson, Dennis Lillee and the talismanic wicketkeeper Rod Marsh. All of these players were champions of their time and surrounded by a supporting cast that was nearly as good as they were, they formed a team that was close to unbeatable in the mid-seventies. As a young boy, I worshipped that group, but the man who held a special place in my heart was the stumpy little wicketkeeper who didn’t know what a backward step was.
Rod Marsh epitomised Australian cricket. He was brash, tough, irreverent and never stopped trying. If he was going to be beaten, he would go down swinging. I loved him. All Australian cricket fans did. He was an unlikely hero and an excellent foil to the tall, athletic fast bowlers with the pop star good looks, to whom he kept wicket.
Marsh did not give a toss about the way he looked or how he got it done. He played to win and worked his not inconsiderable backside off to earn the right to play alongside some of the all-time greats of the game.
Marsh was genuine. What you saw is what you got. Australians identified with him as the man they thought they were. The bloke you wanted by your side when things got a little rough. A man who never knew when he was beaten and who loved to poke fun at convention and tradition. He called a spade, a bloody spade and didn’t know how to tell things other than the way he saw them. At the same time, he had a heart of gold.
Of course, he was a great wicketkeeper. Some of his catches were simply stunning. Most have been lost in the mists of time, but I remember so many blinders taken while he flung his body to the left or right to catch a ball hurtling through the air at close to 100 miles per hour. Many he took down the leg side, which meant his reaction time was infinitesimally small. He knew he was good, but he never pushed the point. He was part of a team and he enjoyed the camaraderie and mateship more than he enjoyed the game itself. Of course, his greatest mate was the legendary Dennis Keith Lillee. The duo combined to dismiss opposing batsmen 95 times during their test match careers – it’s a record that has never been broken.
One of the key requirements of being a good friend is to be able to disagree with someone without fear. Marsh famously did this when Australian captain Greg Chappell, made the infamous decision to instruct his brother to bowl the last ball of a limited-overs match underarm. “The TV stump microphone clearly picked up Marsh yelling, “no, mate, don’t do this.” Chappell didn’t listen to Marsh’s wise advice and all hell broke loose afterwards.
Marsh’s blunt honesty got him into trouble on more than one occasion. He walked away from TV commentary, refusing to back down on expressing his opinion which conflicted with the interests of the TV station. His conflict with Australian Test Captain Kim Hughes is well documented. There were faults on both sides, but Marsh was probably justified in feeling somewhat disrespected by Australian selectors and Hughes.
Marsh never let his ego get in the way. He sucked it up and was one of Australia’s better performers during Hughes’ ill feted reign. He retired in the same year as his two long time friends, Greg Chappell and Dennis Lillee, but did so after the other two had bathed in the golden glow of retirement and bid farewell to their fans. Marsh simply announced it was over and got on with the next phase of his life.
On the day that Marsh suffered the massive heart attack which would lead to his passing, he was doing what he’d been doing since he’d relinquished the baggy green Australian cap. Marsh was in Queensland working for the betterment of the next generation of cricketers. He gave his all to the last. He was a helluva cricketer, but he was an even better bloke.
Rest in Peace Rodney. You played a masterful innings.
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